What is compatibility in a relationship?
Our current pandemic situation has put extra stresses on relationships, whether that be by existing partners spending more time together than is usual, extended separations or the ability to meet someone new given the restrictions.
Complexities in relationships
Relationships are complex. That probably comes as no surprise!
The main reason is that not only does a relationship consist of two individuals with their own life experiences, values, beliefs, needs and desires but a third element, the relationship itself, with all the interactions and dynamics that it brings.
So, let’s take a brief look at some of the complexities.
Couples are attracted by the social and conscious fit between them and also the unconscious fit. Most people can explain the former such as physical attraction, similar interests, backgrounds, lifestyles etc. This, none more so apparent than in the online dating scene where people are making initial choices based purely on the conscious fit with a view to then refining based on ‘compatibility’.
Interestingly, a study by Eastwick, Luchies, Finkel and Hunt (2013) addresses the issue of ‘The Predictive Validity of Ideal Partner Preferences’ in a review and meta-analysis of research. They identify that individuals do have ideal partner preference, that these preferences don’t predict initial attraction, that they do predict later relationship compatibility and that conscious and unconscious emotions are important.
They conclude that people initially form relationships on the “Romantic Affect” which is the unconscious ‘gut reaction’ on attraction and later evaluate partners against the “Abstract Contrual” which is the conscious, ideal traits. In other words, what unconsciously ‘turns them on’ and what consciously ‘they want’ in a partner. Therefore, it is important to spend time deciding what you want and paying attention to what you feel and what you think.
My experience of working with people in a therapeutic capacity suggests that it is within the unconscious fit, and thus long term compatibility, where the complexity and problems arise. Whilst an initial attraction is important, it is often the differences in the unconscious couplings and lack of understanding of each other and what makes someone compatible that causes emotional disconnection and problems in relationships over time. Particularly where situational changes have occurred and changed the dynamics and/or style of relationship.
I am referring to attachment styles, triggers to past experiences and fears, love languages, the many facets of trust and the ability to communicate effectively to have our needs recognised and met.
How we develop through early attachment experiences is likely to unconsciously influence how we make relationships throughout life and affects our expectations, hopes, fears and behaviour within a relationship, particularly intimate, romantic relationships and also, sadly, why and how they may end. Based on the work of Bartholomew & Horowitz, four main attachment styles have been identified in adult relationships:
Each has its own characteristics, fears, styles of communicating and behaviour. However, having different attachment styles does not necessarily mean an incompatible relationship. Rather it is the understanding of your own and your partner's style and a mutual willingness to work together to overcome those differences for the benefit of the relationship which can make the difference to compatibility, especially if other factors are deemed to be so.
Of course, the unconscious fit between two people and the differences in style can also be the trigger to each other’s fears and past experiences. Whenever you feel a negative reaction to your partner, it is important to stop, step back, reflect and connect with what is going on for you rather than blaming your partner.
What are you feeling....disrespected, unheard, unimportant, for example?
Once you are able to identify what you are experiencing, you can communicate this and choose to react differently or ask for what you need.
But, of course, your partner needs the ability to listen and understand your perspective. It also requires vulnerability to be seen as you are and express your fears.
Achieving the above requires trust in your partner. That’s a big word. It doesn’t relate only to fidelity or honesty. So, what does it mean?
Brene Brown describes it beautifully in her Anatomy of Trust. She coined the term 'braving'.
- Trust consists of Boundaries: to know and respect each others'.
- Reliability: do what you say you will, always.
- Accountability: take ownership and apologise if wrong and allow the other to do the same.
- Vault: confidentiality of disclosures.
- Integrity: live by your values in action rather than words.
- Non-Judgemental: accept each other for who you are.
- Generosity: show kindness, think the best, not worst of each other and aim to support each other.
If you feel a lack of trust, try breaking it down into the area that is lacking for you. That makes for more meaningful discussions and the ability to put that right.
That brings us on to communication. The Big C in relationships. Gottman describes the Four Horsemen of the Apocolypse; the ‘don’ts’ in communication:
- Criticism, which naturally results in Defensiveness, Contemptuousness…name-calling, eye-rolling etc…and Stonewalling or the silent treatment.
The latter is like cutting off oxygen to a relationship as without the ability to communicate, it basically cuts it dead and can, of course, also enlist triggered reactions from your partner. Take ownership and communicate in the ‘I feel/think’ and listen to understand rather than to respond.
Finally, love languages. We tend to show our love the way we want to receive it but in order for your partner to feel loved, they need to be shown it in the way that is meaningful for them. Gottman identified five love languages:
- loving words
- helpful actions
- time together
- helpful actions
We will all have preferences for what is meaningful for us. Again, it is not necessary to share the same love language as your partner but to be aware and show love and affection to each other in the appropriate way.
It is important to look after yourself, be aware of and get your needs met as an individual but to also invest in your partner for the benefit of the relationship. If both partners are doing this, long term compatibility is more likely. The key factors are communication, understanding, connection and a willingness to invest in the relationship, which in turn relies on vulnerability and trust.
Whether you are newly single and wanting to understand what went wrong, are on the dating scene looking to meet someone new, in a committed relationship and wish to make the best of it or in a relationship that is struggling and wish to improve it, there is much to consider. If this is all new or confusing to you, then try talking to a therapist who can help you understand yourself and what is important to you in developing a compatible relationship.
Eastwick, P.W., Luchies, L.B, Finkel, E.J, & Hunt, L.L (2013). The predictive valisdity of ideal partner preferences: A review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication doi:10.1037/a0032432
Who is Attractive and Compatible as a Romantic Partner? Jeremy Nicolson, M.S.W., Ph.D. Psychology Today (2013)
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